Roy Choi ’98, Co-owner of Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go

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Roy Choi '98, gives a demonstration at the Worlds of Flavor Street Food conference

Roy Choi ’98, gives a demonstration at the Worlds of Flavor Street Food conference

At a time when chefs and food trucks were members of distinctly different classes of the food world, Roy Choi rented a truck of his own and hit the streets of Los Angeles with his unique Mexican tacos stuffed with Korean BBQ-style meat. With a pedigree including The Culinary Institute of America, Le Bernardin, and the Beverly Hills Hilton, Chef Choi might not have seemed the most likely candidate to go roadside, hawking tacos on street corners—but that is exactly what he did. And that is exactly what has garnered the praise and the attention of the food press and public.

Serving Angelenos street food out of a truck in the middle of the night wasn’t exactly a big part of Chef Choi’s initial aspirations as a young chef. For 15 years, he’d worked his way through New York, San Francisco, Portland, and Lake Tahoe, executing classical French technique in professional kitchens. But perhaps those years were necessary in preparing him to express the soul of a second-generation Angeleno, to create new flavor profiles that would carry the heartbeat of the very immigrant influences that thrive and survive underneath a California sun.

After being laid off in the early days of the recession, Chef Choi was approached by his friend Mark Manguera with the idea of running a taco truck. And so in 2008, in partnership with Mark and Caroline Manguera, he launched Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go. Startup was anything but easy, but Kogi’s popularity grew after blogger Alice Shin—now in charge of PR for Kogi—took notice. The business later became a phenomenon after it began using Twitter to let its fans know where the Kogi truck would be. Today, with four trucks and one outlet in the Alibi Room—a lounge in Culver City, CA—Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go has more than 105,000 followers on Twitter. Building on the success of his mobile culinary business, Chef Choi opened Chego, his first sit-down restaurant, in West L.A. in April 2010 followed by A-Frame in Mar Vista in November 2010.

Honored as one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2010, Chef Choi has been featured in national publications including Time and Newsweek. In 2009, “The Kogi Truck” was named one of Bon Appétit magazine’s “Hot 10.”

In addition to his culinary arts degree from the CIA, Chef Choi holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University, Fullerton.

Once a person signs on to Twitter, they can receive minute-to-minute updates about people or companies they choose to “follow.” When your favorite restaurant is in a truck that changes location every day, Twitter can to be heaven-sent as well as an essential part of success. And, when Kogi devotees stand on line (sometimes for upwards of an hour) waiting to place their orders, they can Twitter their friends and tell them the location and the specials on the menu.

Today, we call this viral marketing. It’s a kind of old-fashioned word-of-mouth, executed at warp speed! And like with Roy Choi and Kogi, success can accelerate just as fast. Chef Choi recently completed his first book, L.A. Son-My Life, My City, My Food, which will hit bookstores in May 2013.

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